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If You Can’t Stand the Heat

©2014 Gail Pursell Elliott

Most of us are familiar with the phrase “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” This form of management was once a recommended way to get employees to quit rather than go through the process of counseling, warnings and the rest of a disciplinary process. While the phrase may be outdated, it is interesting that people still know and understand what it means. Actually, the process is still used although it is considered to be less than ethical and definitely falls into the category of bullying and mobbing.

A recent case in Canada that went to litigation, involved an employee who refused to falsify some information. Her supervisor retaliated by turning up the heat on her, using tactics such as demeaning language and humiliation, often in front of her coworkers. Following company policy, the employee filed a complaint which subsequently was leaked to her supervisor by management. She was then threatened by her supervisor and subjected to increased abusive behavior, some of which was described by her coworkers as “horrific” and “ferocious”. A supposed internal investigation determined that her complaint was unsubstantiated and no action was taken. Finally, after an especially demeaning event, the employee resigned. The courts ruled in favor of the employee, finding not only the supervisor’s actions reprehensible but also the company’s lack of action in addressing the complaint, despite evidence and personal statements on the part of coworkers. The company violated its own policies when it did not intervene on behalf of the employee.

Too often, I hear of this happening within organizations that supposedly have policies and procedures in place to address harassment and other forms of mistreatment of staff, although perhaps not as dramatically as this example. The key point is that when organizations establish policies and procedures they are just as bound by them as their employees are. One of the factors in mobbing is that if the organization does not act, it is construed as approval.

Meaghan McWhinnie of the Canadian law firm McCarthy Tétrault LLP, who wrote a detailed article about this case, suggests the following to employers. These are wise words for any organization regardless of location.
• “Employers must adhere to their own workplace violence and harassment policies. As the Court of Appeal noted, it is not enough to simply pay “lip service” to such policies.
• Employers are vicariously liable for the actions of their employees and therefore it is important that employees, and in particular managers and supervisors, are fully trained with respect to the company’s workplace violence and harassment policies.
• Employers must take all complaints of workplace harassment and violence seriously and an investigation will almost always be required. The key to ensuring that a workplace investigation is conducted properly is to ensure that it is organized, complete and fair. This includes adhering to any pre-determined policy, having impartial investigators, collecting adequate information and making a decision that is supported by the results of the investigation.
• Employers should not threaten reprisal or impose sanctions against employees who make complaints about harassment or violence in the workplace except for in clear cases of bad-faith complaints.
• Courts will not hesitate to punish “bad behaviour.” Therefore, a proactive human resources and investigation strategy is key to prevent management overstepping the line.”
This occurred in Canada where legislation was passed in the fall of 2013 to address workplace violence and harassment through their Occupational Health and Safety Act. Although great strides have been made regarding awareness of bullying and mobbing in the U.S., including action on the part of companies to address these issues through policies and procedures, without the clarification of a law addressing workplace bullying and mobbing, all sorts of issues have recently surfaced which have astonished even some attorneys. For example, some of the policies enacted by organizations when challenged by employees under certain circumstances have been described by the NLRB as “too vague”.

Perhaps we are addressing this topic in the U.S. in the wrong venue. After all, the impact of mobbing and bullying can certainly be construed as a work injury and has been. Early statutes prohibiting this type of victimization in the workplace enacted in Sweden in the early 1990’s emanated from their Occupational Safety and Health agency. Organizations may consider not only policy but also training addressing mobbing, bullying and general harassment as part of their safety program. Mobbing is a serious risk management issue in the areas of both workers compensation and violence prevention.

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For videos including the Five Phases of the Mobbing Process visit youtube.com/dignityrespectlady
Gail Pursell Elliott, “The Dignity and Respect Lady”, has over 20 years experience in middle and upper management, founded Innovations “Training With A Can-Do Attitude” in 1998, and is author of several books including School Mobbing and Emotional Abuse and co-author of the book Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace. Her Food for Thought articles are read by people around the world. Gail has been a guest on such programs as MSNBC’s Deborah Norville Tonight, ABC World News NOW television programs and the Workplace Violence Today program on talk radio.
Contact Gail through her website: http://www.innovations-training.com

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